hard drive history

size still matters: is there ever enough?

IBM Ultrastar 9 ZX

Photo: Red Hill.

IBM Ultrastar ZX

Through most of the 1990s there was a pecking order at the high end of the hard drive business: Seagate was first, IBM was second only to Seagate, Fujitsu and Quantum were serious players, perhaps Hitachi too, while the other SCSI makers gradually left the industry, sold out to a major, or just went broke.

Predicably, Seagate was the first to release a 10,000 RPM drive, the Cheetah, just as it had been the first to release a 7200 RPM drive back in 1992. Equally predictably, IBM was not too far behind.

Like the Cheetah, the Ultrastar 9 ZX was very everything except capacious. There was only one capacity (10 heads for 9.1GB — unlike Seagate, IBM did not bother with a cheaper 4.5GB version), everything else was very. Very expensive (around $2000 new); very loud (probably the loudest drive I have ever heard, not counting faulty ones); very hot (hotter even than a Cheetah); and of course, very fast.

Our office file server already had a quite unnecessary 4.5GB Cheetah, but when IBM offered us a factory refurbished Ultrastar ZX at about half price (around AU$1000 instead of just over $2000) I couldn't resist. It came with only one year of warranty instead of the standard five, but I trusted IBM and bought the drive you see illustrated. That was 1998. As I write in 2011, I still have the drive, and it still works perfectly. It ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week for about six or seven years, by which time we had got pretty tired of the racket it made, our various soundproodfing efforts notwithstanding.

Even today, it is still competitive in some respects with a brand new drive: the data rate is vastly slower but the access times are still only about two thirds of those delivered by a typical new drive. I'd love to photograph inside it but I can't bring myself to wreck such an extraordinary drive.

Illustration: IBM DGVS-39110, the Ultrastar 9 ZX. Notice the height of this very solid drive, which is even heavier than it looks.

Ultrastar 9ZXPerformance1.5
Data rate204.8 Mbit/secSpin rate10,020 RPM
Seek time6.5msBuffer1MB
Platter capacity910MBInterfaceFast wide SCSI
Read channelPRMLHead technologyMR
9 ZX9.1GB10 heads½ height